28th Seattle International Film Festival
"I was attracted to American Gun because itís about something," explains James Coburn, the filmís hollow-cheeked, 73-year old star. "Itís not just fluff."
Coburn should know the difference. Since his onscreen debut in 1959ís Ride Lonesome, the durable presence has conquered westerns, comedy, suspense, childrenís films, and drama. However, such projects havenít always been "about something." Sure, there are the resonant masterpieces like Cross of Iron, The Magnificent Seven, and Affliction (the 1998 Paul Schrader film for which Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Sandwiched in between, however, are frothy lumps of empty cinematic calories like Hudson Hawk and Snow Dogs on his 85-film resume.
Yet, even in the most feather-light production, this silver-haired movie veteran with the Cheshire Cat grin always adds something. In 1999ís Payback, Coburn injects a pulse into the otherwise flatlined film, playing an uncharacteristically sensitive mobster. After having his expensive luggage pelted full of holes by Mel Gibsonís trigger-happy antihero, Coburn complains, "Hey -- thatís just plain mean!" Itís a funny bit that adds welcome color to Paybackís dull palette of stillborn bleakness.
Just plain mean might also describe the role that won Coburn a trip to the Academy Awards podium. As Glen Whitehouse, a cantankerous, whiskey-guzzling cuss for which "ornery" is a gross understatement, the actor makes a completely and utterly unredeemable character interesting to watch. Whitehouse isnít a dynamic chameleon that pours on the charm before sinking his talons in, ala Denzel Washington in Training Day. This guy is a predictable drunk quickly pickling himself into dementia and dragging those around him into an emotionally abusive quicksand.
After Whitehouseís long-suffering wife dies, and her children kneel in prayer before the funeral, he denounces the groups as a bunch of religious nuts and losers. "Not one person in this room is worth even one gray hair on that good womanís head," he sneers dismissively. Glen may be a boorish lout, but heís hypnotic and compelling when the bushy-browed Coburn embodies the unsympathetic part.
Martin Tillman, the gentle, understanding father from American Gun, couldnít be more of a contrast to Whitehouse. However, thereís a connection between the two films, apart from Coburnís appearances in both. Affliction writer/director Paul Schrader specializes in stories about men in search of something. His most chilling and legendary creation, Taxi Driverís psychotic cabby Travis Bickle, searches for his lifeís meaning and finds it only through desperate, delusional acts of violence. In Schraderís Hardcore, the hero is a strict Calvinist father crossing the country in search of his porn actress daughter. Bringing Out the Dead, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, which Schrader wrote for director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver was their first effort as a writer/director team), cover similar terrain in their depictions of lost souls looking for redemption and closure.
"I think a lot of a movieís success is in the writing," confirms Coburn, "and Schrader is a genius when it comes to writing characters. He just plugs it in, turns it on, and lets it happen. We need more writers like him."
American Gun was written and directed by Alan Jacobs, a relative newcomer with two previous movies to his credit (Nina Takes a Lover, Just One Night). However, it plays out like a Schrader film. This time around, the hero is searching not for his lifeís purpose or family, but for the owner of the gun that killed his daughter. "I have the gun," explains Coburn, "and go on a search for who made it and whose hands it was in. Thatís the premise."
Martin Tillmanís life takes as unexpectedly devastating turn after his daughter Penny (Virginia Madsen) visits the Vermont homestead that he shares with wife Anne (Barbara Bain). Martin is a philosophical man, finding comfort in the notion that everything has a reason. This makes it doubly hard for Martin to comprehend the events that transpire during this holiday reunion between daughter, father, and mother. On a last-minute errand one night during her visit, Penny is shot to death. As Martin and Betty are forced to endure this untimely loss, American Gun echoes In the Bedroom and that celebrated filmís brave examination of parental grief.
Struggling to find a meaning behind the madness, Martin searches for a target to blame. This merely distances his from Betty, who snaps, "Why does it have to be anyoneís fault? It just happened."
The heart of American Gun is Martinís road trip across the country to find the .357 magnumís previous owner and come to terms with the shooting. Using its serial number, he tracks down a manufacturing plant that produced the weapon. Subsequent stops in Florida, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas ultimately lead Martin to the truth he so desperately years to attain from the loss of Penny. During this journey, he hears varied tales in which the gun played a part, including acts of desperate self-defense, and passion-filled jealousy.
Those trying to pull a political agenda from American Gun might be disappointed, warns Coburn. "The movieís approach is unique," he explains, "because itís not pro or against guns, but shows what can happen with guns if you donít pay attention. Itís about knowing how to deal with guns. My character has also been in the army, and there are several flashbacks of what happened to him in the war. Heís seen guns from different viewpoints."
American Gun initially portrays Martin as a young man fascinated by his grandpaís service revolver. "It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw," proclaims Martin of the handgun in an early voiceover. Later, when he serves his own tour of duty during World War II, he bears witness to events that re-shape his relationship with such firearms.
Americanís uneasy, two-sided relationship with guns Ė in which they are both romanticized and denounced Ė seems to be at the heart of the film, a point that director Jacobs confirms in a press release quote. "I wanted to show the contrast between the taking up of arms in World War II," he explains, "the last war for which there was unanimous national support, and the way guns are present in modern life. I wanted to explore the difference between a time when fighting for what is right was more black and white than it is now."
American Gun also focuses on how tragedy makes Martin question and reconsider his religious convictions. "I still believe thereís a God," Coburnís grieving father assures himself following Pennyís demise. "I just donít know what to make of him."
Later in the film, a priest struggles to console the bitter mourner. "God never gives us more trouble than we can handle," this Man of the Cloth assures.
"Does that mean that if I were a weaker man," snarls Martin, "My daughter would not be dead?" Again, such religious overtones echo Schrader and Scorsese, filmmakers who seem fueled to tell stories of men tortured by human frailty and begging penance for past sins.
As if comparison to these cinema legends wasnít praise enough, Jacobs joins the leagues of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Atom Egoyan (Exotica), and Rose Troche (The Safety of Objects), as a director willing to take chances with the chronology of his film. By leaving out a key point in the story until American Gunís shocking, unexpected finale, Jacobs forces the viewer to re-examine all that has gone before. We make false assumptions about Martinís motives and are pleasantly blindsided by the filmís final revelation. Weíre reminded that thereís more to current film than the banal, cookie-cutter plotting that Hollywood hacks like Michael Bay coast by on.
And in the middle of it all, thereís the magnetic presence of James Coburn. Bouncing back from the rheumatoid arthritis that taxed him physically in the eighties, this under-rated powerhouse rages forth with some of the most memorable acting of his varied, versatile career. "Coburn read the script," confirmed Jacobs during a recent Q & A at this yearís Seattle International Film Festival to promote American Gun, "and immediately said, ĎI want to do this.í The sad truth is, there arenít too many roles of real substance out there for people his age to play."
Meanwhile, Coburn is quick to praise Jacobs. "I think heíd only done a couple a films before this. I think he got most of what he wanted with the movie."
James Coburn knows the difference between movies that are "about something," and movies that are "fluff." American Gun, his latest triumph, proudly rises above the froth and into the former category.
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